Epic of Manas
The Epic of Manas is a traditional epic poem of the Kyrgyz people. Manas is the name of the epic's hero. One recording of the orally transmitted poem, with close to half a million lines, is twenty times longer than Homer's Odyssey and Iliad combined, or about twice as long as the Mahabharata. The epic tells the story of Manas, his descendants and his followers. Battles against Kitay and Kalmak enemies form a central theme in the epic. Although the epic is mentioned as early as the 15th century, it was not set down in written form until 1885. Different opinions abound regarding the origin of the epic: the 7th—10th centuries, the 11th and 12th centuries and the 15th through 18th centuries.
Manas is the classic centerpiece of Kyrgyz literature, and parts of it are often recited at Kyrgyz festivities by specialists in the epic, called Manaschi (Kyrgyz: Манасчы). Manaschis are usually called to their profession in a dream. In this dream, they meet Manas or other characters from the epic, who tell them to become Manas narrators. If they do not obey, they believe they will fall ill or become crippled. Manaschis tell the tale in a melodic chant unaccompanied by musical instruments.
Kyrgyzstan has many Manaschis. Narrators who know all three episodes of the epic (the tales of Manas, of his son Semetei and of his grandson Seitek) can acquire the status of Great Manaschi. Great Manaschis of the 20th century are Sagimbai Orozbakov, Sayakbai Karalayev, Shaabai Azizov (in the picture), Kaba Atabekov, Seidene Moldokova and Yusup Mamai. A revered Manaschi who recently visited the United Kingdom is Rysbek Jumabayev. Urkash Mambetaliev, the Manaschi of the Bishkek Philharmonic, also travels through Europe. A younger Manaschi, Talantaaly Bakchiyev, combines narrating with being a Manas scholar.
There are more than 65 written versions of parts of the epic. An English translation of the version of Sagimbai Orozbakov by Walter May was published in 1995, in commemoration of the presumed 1000th anniversary of Manas' birth, and re-issued in two volumes in 2004. Arthur Hatto has made English translations of the Manas tales recorded by Shokan Valikhanov and Vasily Radlov in the 19th century.
Manas is said to have been buried in the Ala-Too mountains in Talas Province, in northwestern Kyrgyzstan. A mausoleum some 40 km east of the town of Talas is believed to house his remains and is a popular destination for Kyrgyz travellers. Traditional Kyrgyz horsemanship games are held there every summer since 1995. An inscription on the mausoleum states, however, that it is dedicated to ...the most famous of women, Kenizek-Khatun, the daughter of the emir Abuka. Legend has it that Kanikey, Manas' widow, ordered this inscription in an effort to confuse her husband's enemies and prevent a defiling of his grave. The building, known as Manastin Khumbuzu or The Ghumbez of Manas, was probably erected in 1334. On the grounds is a museum dedicated to Manas and his legend.
A minor planet, 3349 Manas, discovered by Soviet astronomer Nikolai Stepanovich Chernykh in 1979, is named after the epic poem. Numerous places in Kyrgyzstan are named after Manas, including the international airport in Bishkek.
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